Despite what Anthony Davis would have you believe, the Lakers have spent the season eschewing the power forward position entirely. While Davis nominally plays the position, he is in truth a self-hating center, whereas LeBron James is a point guard in a power forward’s body and Kyle Kuzma’s inconsistent shooting masks his own destiny as a wing. The gap has created an occasionally troubling internal dichotomy with every Lakers lineup.
Lineups featuring Davis and either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard are too big, pushing the Lakers down to 23rd overall in 3-point rating and depriving them of much-needed on-ball creativity beyond James. Lineups with Davis at center alongside more shooting have struggled with many of the same typical problems a small-ball team encounters. They become a below-average rebounding team on both ends of the floor, and their defense is 2.0 points per 100 possessions worse than it is with him at the four.
It’s no surprise that they spent the period leading up to and immediately following the trade deadline canvassing the league for a player who could bridge that gap. After losing Marcus Morris to the Clippers and hearing Moe Harkless’ intent to remain with the New York Knicks, though, the ideal options were gone. Any remaining targets would come with flaws, so the Lakers landed on the one whose flaws have been least evident this season.
Markieff Morris’ success or failure as a Laker will be defined by one thing: shooting. If he continues to shoot at the career-best rates he has as a Piston, this signing will go a long way in getting the Lakers to the Finals. The difference between this season and his career has been so stark that assuming he will do so is a bit naive.
3-Point Attempts Per 36 minutes
Corner 3-Point Percentage
Seemingly overnight, Morris evolved from an average shooter into a great one, and the obvious assumption in such cases is that regression is due. Typically, a sample of around 750 3-point attempts is necessary to prove sustained improvement, but Morris hasn’t even taken 200. He took 203 in total last year and shot only 33.5 percent on such attempts.
But Morris’ strong free-throw numbers imply a pre-existing shooting touch. His increased volume suggests an attitudinal shift. This will be the third consecutive season in which Morris sets a new career-high in 3-point rate, and usually, it takes a few years to make the jump from “finally willing to take 3s” to “actually capable of making them.” What’s more, is that Morris is leaving the No. 19 ranked offense in the NBA for the offense ranked No. 4. LeBron James excels in creating the sort of open (42.3 percent) and wide-open (38.5 percent) shots Morris has hit at very high clips this season. Some regression is probably coming, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Morris is going to be a better shooter as a Laker than he was a Wizard or Sun.
If he is, he unlocks quite a bit for the Lakers beyond simply standing still behind the arc and making the open shots offered to him. James abused defenses for years by running pick-and-pops with Kevin Love and Chris Bosh, creative shooting big men who could generate such opportunities in the flow of the offense. He’s had to settle for Davis as his partner in such pursuits this season, but Morris is a better shooter and had some success in Detroit using his craft to find good shots out of those looks.
It’s an important look for the Lakers to have in their back pocket in any series that could require them to play smaller. James’ Cleveland teams, in particular, thrived by playing five-out, and lineups that feature Morris at center could theoretically do so. Even if it only comes about in a potential series with Houston, having a switchable center that can shoot is a necessity against ultra-small lineups.
Realistically, though, the bulk of his minutes are going to come in the sort of normal-sized lineups the Lakers previously lacked the personnel to use. Unlike Kuzma, Morris actually rebounds like a power forward. At 11.7 percent, his total career rebounding rate is higher than anyone’s in the rotation except for Davis, Howard and McGee, and he functions well as a team rebounder by averaging 1.8 boxouts per game in only around 22 minutes. That’s the same amount as Davis in over 34. Just two years ago, as a Wizard, he averaged 5.0 per game. Howard leads the current Lakers with only 3.4.
He’s declined in that regard with age and injuries, but context matters here as well. The Pistons hardly needed Morris to function as a rebounder playing alongside Andre Drummond. The Lakers, ranked a surprising ninth in defensive rebounding rate this year, will need that skill set in those minutes where Davis is at center. If he can do so while properly spacing the floor, he’ll re-align the Lakers’ bench in a meaningful way.
Kyle Kuzma, for instance, stands to benefit greatly from Morris’ presence. As Shams Charania of The Athletic reported, Morris was sold on the idea that Kuzma would now spend most of his minutes as a small forward, where he has played only 98 minutes this season, per Cleaning the Glass. While his shooting suggests he would be better suited as a power forward, he just isn’t a particularly strong post player. His post-up scoring is in only the 33rd percentile league-wide, per Synergy Sports, and his struggles in maintaining awareness of the rest of the court with his back to the basket has led to some unnecessary turnovers.
Kuzma’s best trait is his ability to react to bad defense. Attacking closeouts is only possible when there is enough defense on the floor to force defenses into those uncomfortable rotations. Lineups with two non-shooting big men can’t do that. Lineups with Morris potentially can, allowing him to exist in his most comfortable spaces without limiting the Lakers’ spacing.
Ultimately though, Morris is going to have to generate value defensively if this signing is going to work. The need for a bigger forward was predicated largely on the abuse Kawhi Leonard has dealt them in two matchups so far this season. The Lakers targeted Morris’ brother Marcus with the idea that he could serve as a primary defender for Leonard in an inevitable playoff series against him. Now the superior Morris is on Leonard’s team, and the Lakers have to make do with the bulkier twin. That’s not nothing. Kuzma has found some success using his strength against Leonard, and in an extremely limited sample size, Morris has at least held his own in the past.
Even on stops, though, the holes are readily available. Morris’ reflexes are fairly slow. His foot speed has only declined. His size will help deter Leonard on drives, and he knows how to lead drivers into his rim-protection, which the Lakers obviously have in spades even with only a single center on the floor. He just isn’t a capable enough wing defender in his current state to hang with a Finals MVP on anything more than occasion. He is a body to throw at Leonard, nothing more.
But considering how few of those the Lakers have at the moment, that’s not necessarily the worst thing. That is the fundamental benefit of the Morris signing at large. He provides things the Lakers lacked even if he may not do so in quantities meaningful enough to swing the championship. It’s a low-risk signing that only cost them a player in DeMarcus Cousins who was likely not going to be able to play this season anyway. The Lakers wanted to do better, but they certainly could have done worse than finding a player who slides neatly into a position that was extremely open on their depth chart.